Watkins walks out the garage doors and unlocks a black Cadillac limousine. A regal-looking woman in an African-patterned dress follows, settling into the back as Watkins gets in the driver's seat, chauffeur-style. Soon, they're zooming out of the city, past the exit ramp for Kansas City International Airport, past the undulating hills where red-tinged trees grow in strips between fields, toward the Platte County Courthouse. They're rushing to pick up Lillie Jackson, a woman in her 80s, in time for a 9 a.m. hearing. There, a judge will determine whether Watkins and an archaeologist are allowed to dig on the airport's land for what they think is concealed by tangles of underbrush and a few heavy red stones: the remains of the slaves who built Platte County.
The soil around Kansas City's airport is similar to that in Virginia. Settlers from that part of the country came to Platte County in the 1800s, bringing their slaves with them. They nicknamed the area "Little Dixie" and planted crops of tobacco and hemp. The backbreaking work of tending the soil and cleaning the equipment was done mostly by slaves. Watkins' grandmother, who was born in Parkville, remembered that the names Tolson and Hughes — the names of their white slave owners — figured early in the family's genealogy.
"Parkville was freedom," Watkins explains as he turns the limo off the highway to a residential neighborhood of one-story houses spread among woody stands of trees. If slaves could escape to Parkville, they could make it to Kansas — the free state.
"The underground railroad started there, in Quindaro," Watkins says. "That's where they were hiding them. One real cold winter, you could walk across the frozen river, and if you could get to Parkville, you were good."
The regal woman in the backseat, Timberlyn Smith, speaks up. She's along for the ride after some friends in her book group read a newspaper article about the Platte County hearing and told her that she should attend. Smith is an environmental consultant and a biology instructor at Park University.
"My white friends don't see, you know. You have to kind of educate them," she says over the noise of the road. "They say, 'You all need to get over it [slavery]. It's in the past. It's history. There's no problems now.' There is a discord between the races that we tend to try to glaze over because it's easier."
Watkins says, "We need healing. No more denying. Once you admit you have a problem, then you start dealing with it. Once we find one [grave], it just opens it up, and we'll keep looking till we find them all. For the first time, these people will be treated like human beings."
Watkins pulls up to a white-shingled house on a concrete foundation with a little white Ford parked outside. A stooped woman steps out with her cane, turns to lock her wrought-iron door and greets Watkins, whom she calls "Butch." With his help, Lillie Jackson crawls into the rearmost section of the limo and smiles out the window on the way to the courthouse.